Every Christmas Day for the entirety of my childhood went like this: Wake
up early, wolf down mom’s Norwegian pancakes (nothing Swedish in our
house), tear through the presents under the tree with my sister, hop in the
car and race down the Interstate from Seattle to Portland. The objective
was to arrive at Auntie Marj and Uncle Steve’s house for Christmas dinner
while also making time for a stop off in Centralia, WA to visit an enclave of
elder relatives on my dad’s side. There we’d catch up over eggnog and
cookies and sing a few carols with Great Aunt Ellen merrily blasting away
on her Hammond organ before pointing ourselves back toward Oregon.
Our Christmas ritual was a grand and familiar adventure for me. But as an
adult I can now sympathize with my parents’ occasional threat, prompted
by sheer exhaustion, to cancel or postpone the southbound leg of the
annual Conley Family Christmas pilgrimage.
As warm, wonderful, and full of privilege as my childhood holiday memories
are, I developed a sense that the magic of Christmas was frenzied and
fleeting. I remember desperately trying to hold on to Christmas before it
slipped away into the dark Lake Oswego sky after dinner and presents with
In a way, my instinct that Christmas couldn’t be contained in a single day
was spot on. As far as I knew, The Twelve Days of Christmas was just a
clever holiday song that taught children how to count. While the miracle of
a Christmas season that extended beyond the 25th of December would
have blown my young mind, even the feast of Christmastide is too small for
the big reality at the heart of Christmas.
Here’s the thing: the big reality at the heart of Christmas isn’t an idea, or a
doctrine, or a teaching. It isn’t a commandment or a moral code. Friends,
it’s God’s very self. Emmanuel means, “God with us.” Jesus is God
incarnate, the embodied shape of God’s heart and love for us.
The personhood of Jesus is central to Luke’s infancy narrative. Luke takes
pains to locate Jesus in a particular time and place. The references to
Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius of Syria give Jesus roots; a
specific historical context. Jesus is born in Bethlehem because his family
was displaced by imperial decree to register in Joseph’s ancestral
hometown. The people of Bethlehem have opened every last spare room to
the overwhelming influx of migrants doing the same, so discard any notion
of unwelcoming innkeepers and townsfolk you may have grown up with.
The only force of inhospitality in this story comes from the top tier of power
But what concerns us today is not inhospitality, but rather the hospitality of
God. God’s hospitality is expressed in the humble birth of a human baby to
weary, transient parents. I’d like to propose a Choose Your Own Nativity
Pageant Adventure. Imagine you are Mary, Joseph, a shepherd; or you’re
more of an animal person, a donkey or a cow. In astonishment and joy you
recognize love incarnate gazing up at you from a simple straw-hewn
manger. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? Can
you feel, maybe even hold in your arms the enfleshed, vulnerable, very
substance of God?
It is no accident that God chose to extend hospitality by first revealing
Godself to people living on the margins, not to the halls of power and
wealth. Because of Jesus, we are assured that Emperor Augustus is not
lord and savior, even though he also claimed that title. Because of Jesus,
we can stop fearfully scanning the heavens for a vindictive, white-bearded,
power-hungry impersonal God abstraction and give our gaze a more downto-earth focus. We are invited to recognize, know, and love the
embodiment of God right in front of us.
Luke often deploys a “recognition and response” literary device in his
gospel narrative. Last Sunday we heard the exuberant story of the
Visitation – Mary’s posthaste journey to affirm – in the company of her
cousin Elizabeth – what had been announced to her by the Angel Gabriel.
With a prompting from St. John-the-Baptist-in-the-Womb, Elizabeth
recognizes the universal hope contained in the personal moment of human
encounter, hails her cousin with a blessing, and Mary responds with her
song of shared blessing, the Magnificat.
Today we hear the Angel of the Lord putting terrified shepherds at ease
and proclaiming, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the
people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the
Messiah…” They are exhorted to go and “find the child wrapped in bands of
cloth and lying in a manger.” The shepherds agree to check it out, they
recognize the sign as promised and they respond by making known the
good news, which amazes all who hear it.
I said earlier that I’ve come to recognize that the essence, the joyful truth of
Christmas can’t be contained in a single day. To be sure, the reality of God
incarnate transcends the bounds of time and space. And yet, importantly, it
is accessible to us, knowable to us, relatable to us in time and space.
There is something about today, this day, Christmas Day, that is
foundational to what it means to live our incarnate faith. Indeed, here you
are. What brings you to church this Saturday, Christmas morning?
We just heard The Angel of the Lord declare good news of the savior for all
the people, the Messiah, born this day. Here we get a glimpse of Luke’s
understanding of salvation. It contains the solid hope for eternal life with
Christ, no doubt. But the equation isn’t only forward looking, nor overly
concerned with an evacuation plan for the hereafter. God’s Christmas gift is
that salvation belongs to all people this day, right now. And, our salvation in
Jesus is just as much about healing, transforming, renewing, righting
injustice, reuniting: right here, right now, this day, today.
Some of you might recall the 90s Joan Osborne hit single, “What if God
Was One of Us?” I find this line arrestsing : “If God had a face, what would
it look like and would you want to see, if seeing meant that you would have
We don’t need a photograph or description of Jesus to see his face and
believe. We only need to open our eyes and look around us. Look at the
person sitting nearest you. There is something of the Christ revealed in all
of us. Perhaps this dawning of holy recognition is what prompted the
shepherds to share the good news some two thousand years ago in
ancient Palestine. I have no doubt that this Christmas gift was part of the
treasured truth that Mary pondered in her heart, too.
Where do you recognize Jesus this Christmas? What will be your response
to that joyful recognition?